Friday, August 15, 2003

Time to get out that beat-up old broomstick you stowed away after the fall of the Berlin Wall and start poking under your bed again. Commies, Socialists, Marxists of all stripes, not to mention the Devil himself, have infiltrated Washington’s theater scene in an array of plays that shed a daringly different light on Lenin, Stalin and the Moscow arts scene under repressive Soviet rule. This August trio of dramas includes Robert Kapler’s “Love in Exile” at the Warehouse Theater, Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” at the Casa del Pueblo and Howard Baker’s “The Power of the Dog” at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre.

A world-premiere production as well as the opening gambit of Washington’s new Hyacinth Theater Company, Mr. Kapler’s “Love in Exile” concerns the extramarital activities of that stolid architect of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Already involved in a relatively loveless but practical marriage with his political comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin falls for the dashing young radical feminist Inessa Armand. Perhaps this is what exile in romantic Paris does for a revolutionary fighter already at odds with his party’s sclerotic theoreticians.

Free-loving Inessa — she already has shacked up with her wealthy husband’s brother during a shared Siberian exile — still has plenty of money to spare and arrives in Paris already enamored of Comrade Lenin. Her flexible husband actually supports Lenin’s aims, and while Inessa is around, funds flow freely to Lenin’s dissident Bolsheviks. It’s not surprising that she and Lenin soon consummate other business during a lazy afternoon bicycle ride in the country.

Unfortunately, Krupskaya becomes disenchanted with this uncomfortable triangle and forces her husband into a final round of Truth or Consequences.

Mr. Kapler credibly condenses the plot to its human essentials, giving primacy to personal relationships as they interweave with the revolutionary tapestry. Nonetheless, his script has its problems. The chess metaphor that drives the play is strained. Also, the back-story flashbacks to Lenin’s childhood lengthen the play just enough to make it drag. Judicious snipping would help this script a lot.

More problematic, however, is the stately pace that director Ingrid Cornell has imposed on the production. It has the effect at times of rendering climactic moments of the play, well, anticlimactic. Nonetheless, the acting is decent, and it’s often enough to overcome the production’s pokiness.

As Lenin, Paul McLane gives a finely nuanced interpretation of an exceedingly difficult role, credibly portraying Lenin as an introverted romantic straining to escape his own self-imposed intellectual boundaries. Also nicely done are Frank Britton’s portrayal of Grigori Zinoviev, Lenin’s zealous sidekick, and Georgia Schlessman’s acidic realization of the hapless Krupskaya. Less satisfying, however, is Jamie Boileau’s portrayal of Inessa. She is successful in capturing Inessa’s sparkling intellect but is less convincing in her emotional moments, her up-inflections making her sound at times more like a Valley Girl than the crisply effective feminist leader Inessa actually was.

Meanwhile, at the Casa del Pueblo, the hyperkinetic Rorschach Theatre company is staging its over-the-top take on Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Master and Margarita, or, The Devil Comes to Moscow.” Originally penned as a novel, the work was suppressed by the author in the 1930s for fear of Stalin and his henchmen. Its reconstruction and publication in 1967 created a sensation in the Soviet Union. The novel was adapted quite faithfully and impressively to the stage by Jean-Claude van Itallie, based on a translation by Sergei Kobiakoff.

Bulgakov’s work takes elements of surrealism, gnosticism, literary satire and fantasy and tosses them into a Vita-Mix with a heavy dollop of “Faust” and a squeeze of William Blake’s Prophetic Books. His characters include petty Communist Party functionaries; artists and would-be artists confined to mental asylums for incorrect thinking; Pontius Pilate; Jesus Christ; a crazed Matthew the Tax Collector; a vampire; a bipolar cat; and three main characters, the Master (a novelist), Margarita (his mistress) and Professor Woland, who just happens to be the Devil himself.

What emerges from the spigot is re-blended by Mr. Van Itallie into a witches’ brew structurally reminiscent of the blocks in Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real.” Bulgakov’s work is an anguished indictment of Stalin’s repression of self-expression. Bulgakov himself clearly identified with the Master who worships Margarita, his Muse, and eventually is saved by the Devil in a world that has permanently reversed polarity.

Staged with eerie appropriateness in a high-beamed former sanctuary, this production crackles with manic energy as it emerges from the gutters of Moscow, time-travels to the Crucifixion at Golgotha and concludes with an artistic Resurrection presided over by Satan. The audience is surrounded by ministages and tableaux that pop up without notice and never cease to astonish. And yet, from all the din, confusion, bitter satire and raucous humor, the ghost of the Old Believers seems reassuringly to arise, as blasphemy morphs into a moving and very Russian spiritual transfiguration. This production will have you arguing at a coffeehouse or bar well past closing time.

The acting of the Rorschach ensemble is superb. Rapid costume changes, multiple characters per actor, insane hijinks and occasional moments of Grand Guignol (watch out for the tongue-ectomy and the head) — this is the kind of stuff that actors love to sink their teeth into, and in this production, they literally do.

Tim Getman, as Woland/Satan, is a fantastic Master of Ceremonies, evolving from a dapper tourist into a garish blend of Joel Grey and Tim Curry at their worst.

Lindsay Allen as Margarita, Scott Graham as the Master and Grady Weatherford as Behemeth the Cat also do their best to keep the madcap action in play. But perhaps the biggest star of the show is director Jenny McConnell, who keeps this 21/2-hour circus of mayhem coherent, entertaining and thought-provoking. Surely there’s a Helen Hayes nomination here somewhere for what might be one of 2003’s most astounding theatrical adventures.

The third play in August’s Soviet Triple Crown, Longacre Lea’s production of Howard Barker’s “The Power of the Dog,” was previewed Tuesday at Catholic University’s black-box Callan Theater. Mr. Barker is known as the enfant terrible of British contemporary drama, and his “theater of catastrophe” is on full display in “Dog” as he free-associates Stalin, Churchill and various soldiers, photographers and filmmakers into an unpleasant melange of postmodernist moral equivalency — all commented upon by an irritating Scottish comic who scampers about doing a poor imitation of Lear’s Fool.

Ably directed by Kathleen Ackerly, this production is briskly paced, sharply acted and at times quite funny. But alas, Mr. Barker’s 21/2 hours of surface profundities will appeal mostly to academics, semioticians and alienated students of lit crit who will find great intellectual amusement in the deconstruction of mass murder.

In 2003, shocking the middle class has actually become quite bourgeois. Maybe Mao was really onto something when he ordered all the intellectuals out to the rice paddies.


WHAT: “Love in Exile” by Robert Kapler.

WHERE: Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Aug. 19. Through Aug. 24.

TICKETS: $24 to $28, $20 for students, seniors, groups.

PHONE: 202/783-3933


WHAT: “Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov

WHERE: Casa del Pueblo, Calvary Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Road NW.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 10:30 p.m. Aug. 23, 5 p.m. Aug. 30. Through Aug. 30.

TICKETS: $15, $12 students, seniors, groups

PHONE: 703/715-6707


WHAT: “The Power of the Dog” by Howard Barker

WHERE: Callan Theater in the Hartke Drama Complex at Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Road NE

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17, 2 p.m. Aug. 24 and Aug. 31, 2 p.m. Sept. 7; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3. Through Sept. 7.


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